Yogi Patel, a retired chemical engineer and motel owner from Dallas, was nearing the end of his presentation about the need to tackle illiteracy in India when he put up a slide showing a thumb impression: his dad’s.
“I’ve never needed anyone to tell me just how important education is,” Patel said last weekend to a gathering of the Indian diaspora in Singapore. “I’ve seen it in my own life.”
Born into a poor, illiterate family in Gujarat, Patel was lucky to break free of the poverty trap. Several people from his community had prospered in east Africa. They supported his studies. Decades later, illiteracy and poverty are still feeding off each other in India, only the scale of the problem is now much larger. Many of the 60 million children in India who are currently of school-going age will struggle to escape a blighted future without timely help. The list of efforts needed to enroll children in schools and keep them there may be long and complex.
However, at 30 cents (Rs11.97) per child per year, the basic math, reading and writing skills required to help young learners retain their interest in education and keep them from dropping out of school are ridiculously cheap.
It’s also critical enough to have caught the attention not just of wealthy Indian communities overseas but also of the Menlo Park, California-based William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Together, the two charities offered to help 10 million students for three years by pledging $9 million (Rs...) last year to Read India, an initiative of Pratham, a Mumbai-based not-for- profit organization for which Patel is a fund-raiser.
Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google Inc., chipped in last month with a $2 million grant to help fund Pratham’s annual survey of the qualitative aspects of primary education in India.
Unlike in the past, there’s no dearth of economic opportunities for educated Indians. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry conducted a survey last year of skills shortages in various industries. Here’s what it found:
—The supply of refrigeration mechanics, electricians and fitters in the food-processing industry is likely to fall short of demand by 65%;
—By 2012, India will need 180,000 more nurses than it had in 2005; there will also be a scarcity of radiographers, physiotherapists and other paramedics;
—About one million new jobs will be created in the textile industry in the next several years, while the automotive industry will add an additional 2.5 million opportunities;
In the fast growing economy, white-collar career openings—from software code writers and doctors to wealth managers—will also abound. But will there be enough hands and minds ready to grab the jobs on offer? Will there be prospects for social and economic mobility, where the initial wealth or caste of the parents will cease to be a determinant of someone’s life earnings?
The answers to those questions may depend on the quality of school education, currently a big obstacle to progress.
In 2006, four out of 10 first-graders in the country couldn’t identify the letters in the alphabet; a large number of older children struggled with rudimentary mathematical operations such as subtraction and division.
Parents who are themselves illiterate can’t help their children get over these stumbling blocks, which eventually become a hindrance to absorption of new information and ideas. About 20% of the students opt out of the school system by age 15 or 16.
The learning deficiencies can actually be reversed quite quickly, say researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab.
“A remedial education programme hired young women from the community to teach basic literacy and numeracy skills to children lagging behind in government schools,” MIT lab directors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo reported in a study of Pratham’s efforts in two Indian cities. “It increased average test scores of all children in treatment schools.”
The key to change lies in the introduction of fun- and activity-based learning, even in the shabbiest and most under- equipped classrooms. It is also vital to prepare teachers in government schools to adopt these low-cost techniques, often with the help of volunteers who may themselves be just high-school students.
The remedial Read India programme will have been administered to every child who needs it by 2010. But that, as Patel says, is just a “one-time antibiotic shot.” Holding on to the gains and ridding the publicly funded education system of its deeper maladies—such as the absence of a quarter of the teachers, and only half of those present actually working—will take more time and effort.
It will be interesting to see if finance minister P. Chidambaram’s annual Budget on 29 February seeks to give a boost to the quality of education, rather than mechanically increasing the allocation of funds to many state-run projects of uncertain short-term effectiveness and dubious long-term impact. The civil society is showing the government a smart way out of the mess that the latter has made of basic education. It’s time politicians and bureaucrats showed more creativity in problem solving, an area in which every four-year-old in the country can teach them a thing or two, if given a chance.Bloomberg
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